Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
At the risk of raining on the parade of sunny weather Clark County has enjoyed the past couple weeks, we have managed to find a dark cloud amidst the clear skies: Forecasters predict a busy wildfire season for Western Washington.
Officials at the National Interagency Fire Center report that an “above normal” potential for large fires exists west of the Cascade Range and that “the above normal potential in these areas will gradually spread southward and eastward along the Canadian border from northwestern Washington as the season progresses.”
The report from the center, based in Boise, Idaho, adds: “Outlooks through spring and into summer continue to indicate warmer than average conditions for the region. Precipitation is most likely to remain below average west of the Cascades.”
On top of that comes a new report that illuminates the detrimental impact of wildfires. In addition to often threatening people and structures, devastating wildlife habitat, affecting irrigation and fouling the air, wildfires have a previously unknown long-term impact. Areas that have burned see an increase in snowpack melt rate for as many as 15 years after the flames go out.
Researcher Kelly Gleason said: “This fire effect on earlier snowmelt is widespread across the West and is persistent for at least a decade following a fire.” Snow in burned areas melts an average of five days earlier than in areas that did not burn. The loss of protective cover and the collection of heat in the ground contribute to the melt. “Snow is already melting earlier because of climate change,” Gleason said. “When it melts earlier, it’s causing larger and longer-lasting fires on the landscape. Those fires then have a feedback into the snow itself, driving an even earlier snowmelt, which then causes more fires. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Indeed, wildfires can create a vicious cycle, and yet they are an unavoidable fact of life, particularly in the Western United States.
While good arguments can be made that fires should be allowed to burn unless they threaten lives or property, the potential damage calls for prevention and suppression. Washington saw a record 1,850 wildfires in 2018 and already has dealt with 51 blazes this year. And recent years have seen state records for the number of acres burned.
Last year’s devastating fires in California highlight the need for a stern response to fires. Nearly 2 million acres were burned, and the Camp Fire resulted in at least 85 fatalities.
In Washington, this year’s Legislature declined to approve a request of $62.5 million from the Department of Natural Resources to fund a new Wildfire Prevention and Suppression Account. But lawmakers did include $45.5 million in the two-year operating budget for suppression and to fund forest health programs. Meanwhile, the federal government has taken steps to more effectively address wildfires, but President Trump’s proposed 2020 budget would cut funding for forest management and wildfire programs. The mixed signals are frustrating for states that annually find themselves on the front line of wildfires.
For city dwellers, wildfire season is an inconvenience. For rural residents, it can be a threat to life and property. The Department of Natural Resources provides recommendations to avoid sparking a wildfire and for protecting structures. With fire season officially here, it is time to make sure that property is cleared of brush and that precautions are being taken.
In the meantime, enjoy the sunshine. But keep in mind that warm, dry weather increases the risk of fires this summer.